Document Type


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Journal/Book/Conference Title

BMC Infectious Diseases



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Originally published at

Funded in part by the VCU Libraries Open Access Publishing Fund.

Date of Submission

October 2019


Background: Definitive diagnosis of meningitis is made by analysis of cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) culture or polymerase chain reaction (PCR) obtained from a lumbar puncture (LP), which may take days. A timelier diagnostic clue of meningitis is pleocytosis on CSF analysis. However, meningitis may occur in the absence of pleocytosis on CSF.

Areas of Uncertainty: A diagnosis of meningitis seems less likely without pleocytosis on CSF, leading clinicians to prematurely exclude this. Further, there is little available literature on the subject.

Methods: Ovid/Medline and Google Scholar search was conducted for cases of CSF culture-confirmed meningitis with lack of pleocytosis. Inclusion criterion was reported cases of CSF culture-positive or PCR positive meningitis in the absence of pleocytosis on LP. Exclusion criteria were pleocytosis on CSF, cases in which CSF cultures/PCR were not performed, and articles that did not include CSF laboratory values.

Results: A total of 124 cases from 51 articles were included. Causative organisms were primarily bacterial (99 cases). Outcome was reported in 86 cases, 27 of which died and 59 survived. Mortality in viral, fungal and bacterial organisms was 0, 56 and 31%, respectively. The overall percentage of positive initial CSF PCR/culture for viral, fungal and bacterial organisms was 100, 89 and 82%, respectively. Blood cultures were performed in 79 of the 124 cases, 56 (71%) of which ultimately cultured the causative organism. In addition to bacteremia, concomitant sources of infection occurred in 17 cases.

Conclusions: Meningitis in the absence of pleocytosis on CSF is rare. If this occurs, causative organism is likely bacterial. We recommend ordering blood cultures as an adjunct, and, if clinically relevant, concomitant sources of infection should be sought. If meningitis is suspected, empiric antibiotics/antifungals should be administered regardless of initial WBC count on lumbar puncture.


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